When you can't supply what customers or clients need, send them to another supplier instead of playing dumb. Even if it's a competitor, giving guidance will improve your standing in the long run.

Frank Sennett, owner and president of General Machine, in Windham, Maine, runs a shop that makes parts for electronics manufacturers. His customers sometimes need parts he can't make or can't price competitively. So he shares his industry expertise and network of contacts. Although he might be turning down short-term business, he says it helps secure long-term advantages for General Machine.

"Helping our customers gives us a team-member image," he explains. "If they're going to seek this information anyway, our position only gets better if we are helpful, honest, and not threatened by their request." Acting like a partner encourages customers to communicate openly, too--and that's the payoff. "We're better able to assess their needs and make adjustments to our service early to match changes in their operations," Sennett says. Two regular customers now include him in their new-product planning as the plastic-parts expert. "I get in on the ground level on new projects," he says, "so I can get the cream-of-the-crop jobs."

Copyright 1998 G+J USA Publishing